ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

A story now about the public's approval of President Bush from an important part of the country. Cambria County, Pennsylvania, is a socially conservative, old-time manufacturing county that typically votes Democratic. It went for President Bush by a small margin in 2004. As NPR's Robert Smith reports, the president's approval has taken a hit in Cambria County just as it has in the country overall.

(Soundbite of church bells ringing)

ROBERT SMITH reporting:

The center of Johnstown is almost empty on this weekday afternoon, until a car with a Bush-Cheney bumper sticker pulls into a parking space. Karen Soliday says she prays for the president every day and she hopes he has a solution for Iraq, but she doesn't sound optimistic.

Ms. KAREN SOLIDAY: I don't believe that war solves any problems.

SMITH: And in this case, she says, she sees the problems every day on the news. Soliday says she still believes that the president was the right man for the job, but she wants to hear something different from him.

Ms. SOLIDAY: I would want to hear I think that some more of our troops would be coming home. You know, we've had three young men from this area killed in Iraq, so, you know, it's something that's come close to home for some folks.

SMITH: Home, here in the Allegheny Mountains, is like a lot of other old-time industrial cities. For the last 30 years, the Johnstown area has voted for a Democrat for president--until 2004. The president's support for gun rights and opposition to abortion tipped the balance in this socially conservative Catholic town. But these days the casualties in Iraq are more on people's minds.

Ms. NAOMA MIDDLETON: (On phone) Convention and Visitors Bureau, may I help you?

They hung up.

SMITH: Naoma Middleton(ph) has volunteered for front-desk duty at Johnstown's Welcome Center since she retired. She knows that the president said in his speech to the nation this week that the commitment to Iraq is worth it.

Ms. MIDDLETON: But I wonder to me would it be worth it if my son were there.

SMITH: Middleton also voted for President Bush. She can't imagine that John Kerry would have had a better solution. But then again, she doesn't know if anyone has a good plan for Iraq.

Ms. MIDDLETON: Common sense says let's get them out of there, but then you think that's not going to solve it. I don't know. It's a quagmire. It's--what are you going to do?

SMITH: These questions have political observers wondering if the electoral balance could shift again in these swing counties. Ray Wrabley, a professor of political science at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, says the Republican drift of the area isn't necessarily permanent.

Professor RAY WRABLEY (University of Pittsburgh): The vote for President Bush wasn't necessarily an enthusiastic endorsement; it was a calculation that John Kerry doesn't measure up. And now that Bush isn't being measured against John Kerry, I think that he's falling short as well.

SMITH: The Democratic tradition of these blue-collar towns is deep, Professor Wrabley says, and the right candidate can win.

Prof. WRABLEY: A Democrat would have to come in and make a case that they can speak to the voters' concerns about economic prosperity, about job loss, about job security, and not worry them on the values issues that they are, you know, out of step.

(Soundbite of machinery operation)

SMITH: The old Swank Hardware building in the center of Johnstown is being demolished, and a crowd has gathered to watch the destruction. Larry Lloyd(ph), a lifetime Democrat and former steel worker, is one of the people who switched parties to vote for President Bush. He supported the Iraq War initially, but he says the president has had trouble making his case.

Mr. LARRY LLOYD: If he'd have had more communications with the American people, I think he'd have been better off. You know, he wait--he goes too long in between his talks.

SMITH: But Alan Flimell(ph), a former Army Reservist who worked in military intelligence, doesn't blame Mr. Bush for the communications problem. The public and the press are too impatient, he says. They don't see the big picture.

Mr. ALAN FLIMELL: It's not just about Iraq. It's about our commitment to the principles of liberty and freedom, and that for people in the military, you know, we value that, and I'm afraid sometimes the rest of the nation--it's not that they don't, but I'd like to see the politics taken out of the mix.

SMITH: Those big-picture themes of liberty and freedom are what President Bush has been emphasizing all this week. In places like Johnstown, Pennsylvania, though, he still has some convincing to do. Robert Smith, NPR News.

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